Jenna Bush Hager said she “couldn’t believe” her October Read With Jenna pick was a debut novel. “It’s epic in scope,” Jenna said, speaking to TODAY. “I couldn’t believe how beautiful the writing was. I was underlining things — it just says so much about where we find hope and love amid our darkest times.”
The book is “The Whalebone Theater” by Joanna Quinn, and indeed it is epic in scope: The novel follows decades in the life of Christabel, an orphan born to an aristocratic family in the early 20th century through her time in espionage in World War II. The novel sprawls from a crumbling mansion in the bohemian 1920s through the espionage circuits of the war.
Left largely alone with her half-siblings Digby and Flossie, Christabel’s childhood is marked by the arrival of a whale who lands on the shores near their house. They turn the whale cavity into a theater, where their imagination soars, solidifying relationships that sustain them throughout the tumult of the century.
Jenna was drawn to the world that Christabel creates, much more vibrant than the one in her house. “Christabel, the protagonist, is this fierce, independent girl who doesn’t feel necessarily seen or heard. So she creates this magical theater where she can express herself. I thought that that idea of kids who may not necessarily be seen but use creativity and imagination to kind of create a world for themselves is something that I just loved,” Jenna said.
And as a twin herself, Jenna was drawn to the book’s “beautiful” depiction of sibling-hood. “I'm always drawn to the idea, thematically, of siblings that make us feel good enough. This is really a love story between siblings, which is something I related to and loved,” she said.
The Whalebone Theater” was chosen in conjunction with Her Majesty The Queen Consort Camilla’s The Reading Room, a book club the royal started in 2020.
Jenna traveled to The Dumfries House in Scotland to interview Quinn about the wartime novel — and the extraordinary story of how it came to be.
Speaking to TODAY, Quinn explained that she been working on the novel for a decade, juggling her love for writing between her job and responsibilities as a single mother.
“I always had it in my head that at some point I'd like to write a novel, but like lots of people, it’s really hard to find the time to do it. So in my 20s and 30s, I sort of did mainly short stories, because I was working full time. Then I thought, ‘I'm gonna have to force myself into it,’” she said.
Quinn decided to pursue a creative writing PhD, plodding methodically, along a chapter at a time during train trips or when her daughter was asleep.
Then, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Quinn found herself in a situation that was “precarious and quite scary,” and also led to her big break.
“I had just been made redundant (at work). So I was in lockdown without a job and having homeschool. My landlady very kindly let me pause my rent, but it was only for three months,“ she said. “My house was chaotic, covered in felt pens and paper and wet washing.”
During that time, a writer friend said his agent is looking for manuscripts to read. “The Whalebone Theater '' wasn't finished, but her friend encouraged her to send it in regardless. Soon, she got a phone call from the agent.
“She said, ‘I love it. I want to sign you up. When can you finish it?’ It felt surreal, like a Cinderella, fairy godmother type thing.”
From there, Quinn found the speed she had been looking for, writing for hours a day so she could finish the book by the end of 2020.
The novel is set on the Dorset Coast, near where Quinn lives. “I've always been one of those people that if I see a big country house open to the public, I will go and look around. I love imagining what it would have been like, but I'm not the kind of person who would ever end up living in one of those houses. So I knew that if I was going to write about them, I wanted to write about it from the point of view of someone who doesn't really fit in,” she said
And so, Christabel was born.
“She wants to be a leader. She wants to be in charge. She wants to have an active life. But the role that she's designated as a girl in an upper-class family is a very narrow one. It was fun for me to see how she would fare against the sort of ups and downs of what happens in that period of history,” she said.
Quinn said Christabel’s arc mirrors her own, albeit inadvertently. As an adult, Christabel invokes her younger self’s pursuit of creativity — and so did Quinn.
“I found myself thinking about how we take our imagination as children with us. Who we imagined we're going to be versus who we end up being. Christabel's journey is really a return to her own imagination and going back to the theater, which is kind of mirrored in my journey of writing a novel,” Quinn said.